Thursday, April 19, 2012

Student fees continue to promote environmental progress at the U of I

Student fees continue to promote environmental progress at the U of I

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When you think about Earth Day, you’re likely to picture crowds outdoors—people carrying signs, listening to speeches and cleaning up parks. And all of those things have been taking place this week at the University of Illinois. But over the past decade, students here have greatly expanded the definition of “environmental activism,” and changed the way the university operates in the process. What’s more, their most effective efforts are often their least dramatic.

[Photo: Monica Venhuizen/Illini Union Marketing Department
Left to right, top: Ronald Revord, Marcus Ricci, Suharsh Sivakumar
Left to right, bottom: Kathryn Kinley (Treasurer), Amy Allen (Vice-Chair), Marika Nell (Chair), Emily Cross (Secretary)

Case in point, making large sums of money available for efforts to reduce the institution’s environmental footprint through a set of “sustainability fees” they pay each semester. These fees, which have been enacted with overwhelming support in three separate student votes dating back to 2003, now generate roughly a million dollars a year to fund projects.

I checked in recently with Marika Nell, who is an undergraduate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, to talk about how money generated by sustainability fees has been allocated this academic year.

She pointed out that the greatest sum—$500,000—had been committed to the Campus Revolving Loan Fund. This fund, which was established with a matching contribution from the Office of the Chancellor, and a larger one from the Office of the President, makes loans for projects that pay for themselves in savings over time. It is a self-sustaining, energy saving machine, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Is there any act of conservation less dramatic than swapping one type of fluorescent light for another, more efficient one? How about installing occupancy sensors so that the lights turn off after people leave a room? Thanks to the Campus Revolving Loan Fund, 54 campus buildings or units will benefit from such upgrades in the months to come.

It’s the cumulative impact of upgrades like these that has enabled the University to reduce its overall energy consumption by 19% in the past four years. In doing so, it has exceeded the ambitious goal established by the Illinois Climate Action Plan it adopted in 2010.

Nell also highlighted two other large-scale efforts that the Student Sustainability Committee has funded this year. One is the Campus Composting Project, which, when it’s up and running, will take in all of the food waste from six campus dining halls, in combination with some of the landscape waste from campus grounds. Nell pointed out that composting food waste keeps it from taking up valuable space in a landfill, and saves the University the cost of putting it there. Composting will also produce rich fertilizer, which will be used on the Student Sustainable Farm and replace some of the less earth-friendly products campus groundskeepers currently buy.

Establishment of a large-scale food composting facility will also enable the University to keep the commitment it made to do so in the Climate Action Plan.

The other large-scale project being supported with student funds that Nell called attention to is the installation of retractable shade curtains in greenhouses at the Plant Sciences Laboratory. They’re no sexier than energy-efficient light bulbs or occupancy sensors, but where they have already been installed they have reduced energy use by 33% and cut water use by nearly the same amount.

None of this is to downplay the Earth Week activities that will continue on campus through Sunday. You can find a schedule through the U of I Office of Sustainability at

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Morels in Illinois: first steps on the path to a new obsession

Morels in Illinois: first steps on the path to a new obsession

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The thing was only two inches tall but my heart leapt when I saw it, standing along the edge of a woodland path where I walked recently with my son. If I hadn’t already understood what I was looking at, its honeycombed, gray cap and tubular, cream-colored stem wouldn’t have impressed me. But I did know—it was a morel mushroom. I had seen them before when friends discovered them, but this was the first time I ever found one myself.

[Photos by author: that first morel (above) and a few more, found with the help of a mentor (below).]

Morels are such a passion for some people they would scarcely believe others could need an introduction. But if you, like me, have traveled outside such circles, let me offer this.

The name “morel” refers to mushrooms of the genus Morchella, and mushroom hunters in Illinois generally recognize three groups of them: “half-free,” which are named for the fact that the stem connects to the cap about halfway up its interior; “black,” for the darker ridges on the already dark cap of this one; and “yellow,” which really range in color from a tannish-yellow to gray.

Taxonomists put a finer point on things. According to Andy Miller, who is a mycologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the UI, DNA work has identified at least 26 separate species of black morels, and 16 or more species of yellow.

Among Illinois morels the most widely sought are the yellows, which can reach heights of eight to ten inches and weights of up to half a pound under the right conditions.

In a typical spring, the hunt for morels begins in southern Illinois around the first of April, when the black and half-frees emerge. That’s followed by the hunt for yellows, which begins a couple of weeks later, and continues through mid May. Also in a typical spring, morel hunting progresses north with the season, so Chicagoans don’t expect yellows until about the first week of May.

Of course, there has been nothing typical about this spring, and the morels have come out roughly four weeks early. That’s how I came to find my first morel (a yellow) on the last day of March.

Experienced morel hunters are frustratingly cagey when questioned by newbies about where a person might get started (e.g., “Well there’s this one place I could tell you about, but then I’d have to kill you.”) You need a woodland, though, one that allows collecting. In central Illinois, state-owned parks and recreation areas are your best bet, although it’s important to check site-specific regulations before you head out, since morel season overlaps with spring turkey hunting. (At dual-use sites the morning is given over to turkey hunting and the afternoon to morel gathering.)

Without mentioning locations, mycologist Andy Miller was willing to talk about how to focus the search, once a person is in the woods.

Moisture is essential for mushrooms to form, he pointed out, so you don’t want to spend your time looking where the soil is bone dry. And if you can get out in the days following a rain, that’s ideal.

Miller also suggested that beginning hunters learn to identify a few types of trees, since morels are found in association with some species more frequently than others. Nothing says “morel hotspot” like a dead American elm tree, and the ground surrounding live ash trees and tulip trees is also worth special attention.

Among the tips I’ve encountered for would-be morel hunters, two have proven to be the most useful. The first is to get a copy of the excellent book, “Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States,” published by the University of Illinois Press. The second is to find a mentor; there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to locating things that can be so elusive, and there’s no room for error in identification when it comes to eating wild mushrooms of any sort.

A word of warning

Deadly poisonous mushrooms occur along with nonpoisonous ones throughout Illinois. Neither this article nor the accompanying photo is intended to enable beginners to distinguish between them.